In defence of social science

Like everyone with a degree in real science (that is I have a Bachelor of Science in a subject that does not contain the word “science” in the title), I have often mocked social sciences. The “soft” sciences. You know, the ones that are not real science.

I think that perhaps it is time for us to stop such mocking though.

I am not sure whether we actually believe our own jokes or not. I imagine that we do; that a lot of scientists actually think social science is a load of nonsense.

There are some understandable reasons for this. Physics gives us very definite answers. Even in the days of quantum physics, which you could argue have introduced greater uncertainty, our body of knowledge and accuracy of predictions has only increased. In comparison, psychology and sociology are not able to give us the definite answers or universal rules that the natural sciences bring to the table.

However, there are a number of good reasons for this. First of all, they are new. While you can trace anything back far enough if you loosen the definition, psychology as we know today really only began 130 years ago. In comparison to the thousands of years physics has had, it is a baby. It has not had time to develop the body of knowledge that the natural sciences have.

Consider that it took Newton building on hundreds of years of research to bring together a unified theory of physics into a working body of knowledge. In his own words:

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Similarly another few centuries for Einstein to bring together relatively, with quantum being even newer – and these are summations were are only just building. In may be that there simply has not been time yet for psychology to to have their scientist who brings it all together.

Or perhaps there may be no universally applicable laws, which brings me on to my second reason – social science might just be a lot more complicated than natural science! That is perhaps heretical to suggest, but I think I can make a case for it.

Natural science is very difficult. There are huge equations, our brains are not designed to deal with imaging the sub-atomic level, it is incredibly difficult to measure, etc. Yet we have managed to work out the composition of stars millions of light years away. It is doable.

Social science on the other hand, is not rocket science. It is arguably a lot harder! It might be difficult to work out the composition of fuel you need in a rocket, especially without blowing yourself up, but once you have done it, it is done. The laws of chemistry hold and you can almost guarantee the same result every time.

Not so with social science. The brain is such a complex machine that everyone is slightly, or significantly, different. You cannot predict what a person will do. And that is on the micro level! Scale that up the macro level, trying to make forecasts for global politics or economics, and you have to try and model the behaviour of 7,000,000,000 individuals that make almost entirely unpredictable decisions. That is difficult.

But why do we need to take social sciences more seriously?

I would argue that they are perhaps more important. Few people would deny that being able to bring back rocks from Mars is awesome. I am sure it is also valuable for scientists. However, consider the benefits of focusing on psychological research.

We, humans, are rubbish at making decisions. We use common sense, which is a collection of biases that we think is real knowledge. We build a world model that only somewhat reflects reality. When something does not fit our worldview, we ignore it. We form beliefs and then justify them. We are subconsciously prejudice and we do not even know it.

Now imagine how much better hard science we could do if we learned to spot, mediate and perhaps even remove these issues. Imagine the happier, more peaceful, progressive societies we could live in once we properly understand why people make all the stupid decisions that cause problems in the world. My guess, is that it would be a massive improvement.



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This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 12th, 2014 at 11:20 am and is filed under Science, Thoughts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.